bill traylor_0003

bill traylor_0001

Bill Traylor’s talent surfaced suddenly in 1939 when he was eighty-five years old and had ten more years to live. By then he had left the plantation in Southern Alabama where he had been born a slave in 1854.

After Emancipation, he scratched out a living as a sharecropper before moving to Montgomery, the state capitol where he slept on a pallet in the back of a funeral home and spent his days watching the world pass before his eyes on Monroe Street, the center of the city’s black district.

One day he picked up a pencil stub and began to draw what he saw and what he remembered. He ultimately produced hundreds of drawings and paintings. He was a born storyteller who pushed images of the life around him toward abstraction with no loss of vitality.

His work exists because of Charles Shannon a young white artist and admirer who watched him drawing on the street. He began visiting him every day and while hearing stories about Traylor’s life, he watched him recreating scenes still vivid in his mind as well as that of passing strangers. Shannon brought him art supplies, and buying some and taking others for safekeeping he saved the memories of a long life.


“Outsider” art encompasses all sorts of art which lies outside the boundaries of official culture, otherwise thought of as those on the outside of the established art scene. Typically, though not always, an outside artist doesn’t move in the mainstream of the established art world. The sculptor Beatrice Woods might have been thought of as an outside artist, and surely her lover, the artist Marcel Duchamp, would have been seen as part of the movement (if the term had been around then).

See my blog NAUGHTY LADY for more about Beatrice Wood. She wrote a book called “I Shock Myself”. I’m not sure which was shocking to her, her art or her sex life! Her favorite reply when asked to what she attributed her old age (103) was “I like young men and a piece of chocolate every day.” Either way, she was a grand old lady.

Beatrice fell in love with the French artist Marcel Duchamp when she went to Paris as a young woman first starting out in the art world. She quickly formed relationships with Duchamp and his friend Henri-Pierre Roche, two of the avante-gard artists of the time.

Duchamp bounced around trying any number of art styles, never really settling on any one type. He liked to think of himself as a Dadaist or conceptual artist, or anything which challenged the conventional thought abut artistic processes.

In 1917 he submitted an upside-down urinal to the Society of Independent Artists show. It was titled “The Fountain” and signed “R. mutt”. It was rejected even though the rules clearly stated that all works would be accepted if the fee were paid. Instead it became even more famous than it would otherwise have been when he had his friend the photographer Man Ray photograph it, and then take it to New York where it was celebrated as a huge joke by the reigning artists of the day. Clearly Duchamp would qualify as an “outside” artist even though he had been classical trained.


The naïve art of Grandma Moses, another artist with latent talent, falls into the category as well as some of the following type of art. These paintings by Henry Taylor, a Los Angeles artist, and some of the art we classify as folk art are by those considered “outsider” artists.

Henry Taylor
Painting by Henry Taylor

Banksy, a pseudonymous of an England-based graffiti artist, political activist, film director and painter is also considered an outsider artist. His satirical stenciled street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humor with graffiti. Banksy’s work can be seen on streets, bridges, and walls in cities throughout the world. The son of a photocopier technician, he trained as a butcher in Bristol, but became involved in graffiti during the great Bristol aerosol boom of the late 1980’s.

Banksy does not sell photos of street graffiti directly himself, however, art auctioneers have been known to attempt to sell his street art on location and leave the problem of its removal in the hands of the winning bidder.


Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.


  1. Great bit of history giving life to forgotten or hidden artists. Duchamp, I remember him well. I suppose, mainstream or not, those that create are not too concerned about those sort of labels. It would be nice though to be able to have earned a crust while doing creating.
    Bill Trayler’s work lives on and I suppose he would be very pleased to know that.
    Thank you Kayti for the pleasures of art that you are giving us..


    1. I had never heard of Bill Traylor, but I loved the little painting of a boat-like image with what looks like a black crow sitting atop. Reading his story fascinated me. He painted what his interpretation of what he saw.He was unschooled enough to be himself. The outsiders don’t get enough credit, and their art is just as valid as some of the pieces the art historians rave about. I knew Beatrice Woods and she was as carefree as her art. She was 105 when she died, so she must have known something we need to know.



    1. So many of them were actually classically trained and struck out on a new direction after they learned the basics. Bill Traylor however, had no training and no schooling so he painted honestly and from his heart.



  2. A fascinating post, Kayti. Really wonderful. I like outsider art and I like it in its natural setting as it were. When art goes into a gallery or an official kind of setting, it suffers. It’s one of the reasons I love the gallery here called Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) because it’s done away with all the curatorial stuff that smothers. It’s more like being on a really good day out or like a visit to Luna Park. Only it’s taking place in the midst of all this ravishing art.


    1. I love the spit-in-your-eye spontaneity of outsider art. Love it or leave it. So much is truly beautiful and made from the heart. Too many people make art serious business and feel pretty superior about it. Art should be fun, or at least make you think and/or wonder a little.



  3. I was in high school when I ran into “Nude Descending a Staircase”. I think it might have been in a “Time Magazine” article about the Armory Show. In any event, I remember clipping the photo of the piece and keeping it on my bulletin board. I never thought much about it, or wrote a theme about it, or even read more about Duchamp. But I stared at the piece every day – it was one of the most compelling things I’d ever seen.

    One of my friends lived in Minneapolis for a time. She loves to tell the tale of the museum guard who finally said, at age 75 or so, “You know, I’ve been wandering these halls at night looking at all these paintings for years. I’m tired of guarding them. I want to make some.” And he did. I don’t know his name, and I don’t think he became more than regionally well-known, but he did develop a clientele with the help of a gallery owner, and painted away. He still may be painting, for all I know.


    1. Sometimes that’s all it takes for a budding genius. Look at it long enough and who know what could happen? I think my first experience with Duchamp was after I met Beatrice Woods and learned of their Parisian love affair. It captured my romantic soul! I agree that the “Nude Descending the Staircase” is captivating.



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